The winter dipped into its darkest moments, hanging on too, despite the march of the sun. Jason healed quickly – physically – but even as he did so, he become increasingly cautious. Would it happen again? Why? Why not, more like it. It was like QANTAS’ proud claim to having never lost a passenger. Each passing day simply brought the inevitable closer.
Jason’s schedule tightened; leaving school on time, doing more work at home, going to the shops twice at week at most. He’d reluctantly agreed to pick up Monday Drama Club again, unable to convince the Head to pay for a taxi home afterwards.
His evening jogging routine was ancient history. He took to using the school gym as the lesser of two evils. He’d avoided the gym in the past. Kids would spot any weakness, any huffing and wheezing, any sweat where it wasn’t supposed to be. It would be round the school in no time. So, despite himself, he developed a routine; catching an early bus, a training session before 7:30am three times a week, then hitting the freshly scrubbed showers, and finally tea and toast in the staff room. The uncluttered sink and the crisp daily paper relaxed him, and he felt a sense of superiority as staff staggered in under the weight of files and late nights.
Back home in the evening, however, there was always something to deal with relating to the robbery. The bank was being impeccably inefficient in sorting out new accounts and automatic payments: some bills were paid twice, some not at all, sparking another round of letters of demand.
Jason had phoned the police every few days for a week or so. Nothing. Soon he was picking it up, before checking himself and putting it down again. What did they care? His lawyer wasn’t helping him gain more access to Will either, but still sent the odd bill to remind Jason he was working on it.
Friday nights remained a beacon through the long winter. The half hour he spent on the phone with Will was both pure joy and torture. Like most five-year-olds, Will’s language development was going through a growth spurt, giving Jason increasing insight not only into what was going on in his life, but what was going on in his head. A bit of a good natured tussle developed between them. Will wanted to hear the simple stories that Jason used to read to him on his knee over and over again, like some kind of security blanket. Jason, though, wanted to push on to more challenging work. Yes, to build Will’s appreciation of story and language, but also to create a future with Will, not simply maintain a past. Still, there was always laughter, and they would become lost in each other’s company until Joanne called “time” at the other end of the line.
Jason and Caitlyn were tackling their usual lunchtime newspaper crossword when she noticed a flier on the noticeboard.
“Oh, you have to play,” said Caitlyn.
“Staff versus student end of season football match. You had a lame excuse last year – you’re not getting out of it this year.”
Generally Jason was reluctant to get involved in this stuff. On the other hand, he had played competitive football up until Will’s birth, and what with his new fitness regime, he hadn’t been this fit for years.
“Rob”, Caitlyn yelled across the staff room, “Jason’s in for the match.”
“Deal. Striker then, Jas?” said Rob, the sport teacher who was organising.
Jason hit Caitlyn on the head playfully with the newspaper.
Most of the male staff had played and so knew their way around a pitch. Jason was a cut above that, and while not able to put on the bursts of speed from ten years ago, it was clear to every one at their staff team’s one and only training run that, if anyone could win for them, it would be him.
The weather had warmed up a little, and so playing the match in the afternoon after school mid-week was pleasant enough. It was a traditional fixture in the school calendar, so there was a good crowd: staff, senior students and earnest parents gathered to watch. There was a buffet set up for after the match, courtesy of one of the parents who owned the large catering company the school always used for its functions.
The staff playing kit was a disappointment. Each year there was the promise of a new one, but it inevitably failed to materialise, and they’d cope one more year with the tired old red and black with the peeling numbers. The students, on the other hand, were once again decked out with completely new kit, thanks to one of the City parents. Recent years had seen an escalation in the competition between parents on this front. “Oh, it’s nice to do something special for the lads,” was the defence, as if these boys didn’t have enough privileges already.
The game has been fast and fair for the first half and a bit, a good natured arm wrestle: guile and experience versus raw speed and self belief. As the clock ticked down at two-all both sides strove for a winner. Passes and tackles were becoming more purposeful as the minutes ticked away. Jason’s old verve returned and he drew applause from players and spectators alike with a silky run down the left, and a threaded pass that had resulted in the first goal.
With five to go, it was Rob who saw the opportunity and put a well weighted through-ball forward. Jason beat the off-side trap and was in the clear, just the keeper to beat, and a defender hot on his heels. He knew that feeling. Knew what was coming next. Felt it in his gut. He lined up the goal, head over the ball ready to drive the winner into the bottom left corner.
Just as he was about to connect, the chasing defender, a fifth former called Tom Palmer, swung his foot through Jason’s legs with a tackle that had red card written all over it. It was ugly, deliberate, and brutal.
The two of them sprawled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, Jason yelping mid-air in shock. Palmer was first up, thrusting out a hand in mock atonement for his foul tackle. Jason didn’t need a hand – he exploded up, the thrust of power that had been denied his kicking boot exploding through his fist toward the boy. The thwack sound as he felled the boy with a punch to the jaw ran through his fingers was followed by the thud of Palmer hitting the ground.
The barracking and booing from the sidelines suddenly fell silent. Everyone stood frozen. Mobiles that had been filming the match kept filming.
Palmer’s first groan and twitch sparked the crowd, but not Jason, into action. Jason stood there flexing is hands and hopping from foot to foot. By now a group of parents and teachers, led by Palmer Snr – a solid fifty-something in a suit – had started for the middle. Rob ran straight to Jason, escorting him from the pitch. Jason could see nothing, until Caitlyn’s drained face was in front of him. Putting her arm around his shoulder she guided him away from the sports field to the change rooms.
Jason sat there speechless. He was shaking with rage. Rage at what had been done to him and the success that had been denied him, rage at himself for losing his self control, rage at everything.
Caitlyn knew not to talk. Jason grabbed his gear, put on a jacket, Caitlyn escorting him once more, this time to her car. He sat in the passenger seat stoney-faced while she went over to the field to check on Palmer, but also to tell the Headmaster she was taking Jason home.
“It’s been tough for him Headmaster.”
“So he needs to make it tougher?” snapped the Head, turning to the parent clamouring at his back.
After Palmer had been helped from the field, the players stood around, unsure of what to do. The referee, a teacher from another school, called them into a huddle, announcing that both Palmer and Jason had effectively been sent off, and that the game would recommence with a drop ball, penalising Palmer for his tackle and Jason for his retaliation.
Palmer Snr, seeing the substitute who had been sent out to take his son’s place being waved off immediately, ran up the sideline, yelling at the referee.
“What are you ref?! That maniac attacked my son! We’re waiting for the ambulance, and you’re sending him off!!”
The referee knew this type well. Blowing the whistle, he stopped the game, walking slowly right up to Palmer’s face.
“That was one of the worst tackles I’ve seen on a pitch,” he sneered through his teeth. “If he’d done that in a league game, he’d get three weeks at least. So get off the pitch before I call it off.”
Reluctantly, and still hurling abuse, Palmer Snr retreated to the sideline. He soon ran out of steam, hanging around his son, taking calls every minute or so.
The match petered into a tame draw, and ten minutes after that an ambulance arrived. Some teachers half-heartedly checked to see if Palmer was ok, but even the students seemed subdued. Hanging up just long enough to abuse the medic for taking so long, Palmer Snr overruled his son’s protests that he could walk, and he was taken into the ambulance on a stretcher. Palmer made sure everything was recorded on video.
Caitlyn drove Jason home. The enormity of what Jason had done hung in the car. Neither spoke until they arrived outside Jason’s flat.
Jason sat with his head in his hands. “I’ve really screwed up, haven’t I?”
Caitlyn paused. There was no point in avoiding it. “Yep, big time. But I’m sure it’ll blow over – the kid was fine, and the Board loves you.”
Jason shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, thanks for the lift, I’d better go in.”
He squeezed her hand, hauled his bag off the back seat of the car, then headed across the path and up the stairs. Caitlyn sat in the car for a minute before restarting it, driving off only after she saw Jason’s light go on.
Later, Jason sat in the half dark, listening to the building creak and his own heart pound. He ate a packet of peanuts and washed it down with a few beers. His mobile had rung a couple of times, but he didn’t even pick it up. He suspected Caitlyn, but he was beyond talking.
He felt nothing for Palmer. Palmer was a tool: a blustering big mouth in class with ambitions that far exceeded his barely moderate intelligence. What he was concerned about was his job – in all likelihood he’d lose it. The pro-Joanne group in faculty would push for it too. But there’d always be another job. What really worried him was how it would affect any possible access to Will. No doubt Joanne would use this too, expressing concern about temper management or how she had always felt threatened.
Eventually he shuffled off to have a shower, to wash away the horror of the day.
By eight o’clock that night, a judiciously edited Youtube video showing an earlier, harmless tackle on Jason by the same boy, spliced in with Jason’s punch, was doing the rounds. With tags including “school punch up” and “teacher king-hits student” it had some four thousand views by the next morning and counting. And the consensus was in: teachers like Jason should be sacked.